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Opolais Sings Shostakovich's "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk" with the BSO

Kristine Opolais wears an ornate jumpsuit that ties at the waist. It's gold, green, and red, and the design resembles lilypads. She sits with her legs apart and her arms raised. She touches her face and looks at the camera, vogue-ing.
Polina Viljun
Soprano Kristine Opolais

Saturday, January 27, 2024

Encore broadcast on Monday, February 5

Andris Nelsons's conducts the BSO in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, the most ambitious endeavor in their multi-year survey of works by Shostakovich. Based on Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novella by the same name, the opera weaves the lurid story of Katarina Ismailova, an oppressed, ambitious, and ultimately murderous wife of a provincial merchant.

Andris Nelsons, conductor
Kristine Opolais, soprano (Katerina Izmailova)
Brenden Gunnell, tenor (Sergei)
Peter Hoare, tenor (Zinovy Izmailov)
Günther Groissböck, bass (Boris Izmailov and Ghost of Boris)
Michelle Trainor, soprano (Aksinya)
Alexandra LoBianco, soprano (Female Convict)
Maria Barakova, mezzo-soprano (Sonyetka)
Matthew DiBattista, tenor (Teacher)
Neal Ferreira, tenor (Foreman)
Charles Blandy, tenor (Foreman & Drunken Guest)
Yeghishe Manucharyan, tenor (Foreman & Coachman)
Alexander Kravets, tenor (Shabby Peasant)
David Kravitz, baritone (Millhand)
Brandon Cedel, bass (Porter & Policeman)
Joo Won Kang, baritone (Steward)
Patrick Guetti, bass (Officer and Sentry)
Goran Juric, bass (Priest)
Anatoli Sivko, bass (Chief of Police)
Paata Burchuladze, bass (Old Convict)
Tanglewood Festival Chorus 
James Burton, conductor

Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk

This concert is no longer available on demand.

To read artist biographies and program notes, visit the BSO.

To hear a preview with Music Director Andris Nelsons, BSO Vice President for Artistic Planning Anthony Fogg, and GBH's Jared Bowen on The Culture Show, use the player above, and read the transcript below.

Learn more about The Culture Show on GBH, Monday-Friday at 2pm.


Jared Bowen Andris Nelsons, Tony Fogg, thank you so much for sitting down with us.

Andris Nelsons Great pleasure, thank you.

Anthony Fogg Pleasure.

Jared Bowen So, Andris, I am so eager to to talk to you about your connection to this piece. But, Tony, let me start with you for a second. For the Boston Symphony Orchestra to take on this opera, this is a very epic, significant undertaking. Why?

Anthony Fogg Well, in fact, it's ended up being the end of a long journey with Shostakovich's music that we began in 2015, when Andris, in his first season as Music Director, performed the 10th Symphony of Shostakovich and Deutsche Grammophon, with whom we'd renewed our relationship, was interested in this as a possible single, one-off project. And it proved to be so successful that they then committed to a set of the symphonies around the time when Shostakovich was under the watch of Stalin, and then that expanded to the complete cycle and the concertos, and they expressed interest in doing Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, which Andris was very, very eager to accept that invitation.

So this was a project that was in fact, planned for the season that didn't happen, so the 20-21 season. So we put together this very large cast. Sadly, it was one of the things that I would occasionally look at my calendar in that year and think, oh God, what should we be doing? And this was one. But we were determined that we wanted to bring it back to share with the audiences. But also we committed to doing a recording for Deutsche Grammophon at that point.

But it's a huge undertaking. It involves, in our casting, 20 solo singers. There are probably about 26 different roles across the course of the whole opera. Four of them are significant roles: the roles of Katarina and Sergei that sing right throughout the course of the opera. Zinovy, her husband, and Boris, her father-in-law, are killed off early on. These are four principal roles, but there are many, many other roles which are small but incredibly characterful.

And one of the challenges in casting was to find enough differentiation between the many male voices, because you have, you know, the First Forman and the Second Forman and the Third Forman and the Mill-hand and the Coachman and the Policeman and then the Chief, you know, and they are all very close in range, but need to be quite different. And when they have just small interjections and you need to be able to say, oh my gosh, who's that? What character is that? So it was a big undertaking, and we hope that the balances all work together. But a big project for everyone, a huge orchestra, a quite large orchestra on stage is joined by about 14 additional brass. We refer to that as a banda, which is best known in Italian opera. But this is a banda of extra brass players that, at the really climactic moments, join with everyone else, and it really just notches up the volume to, well, to number 11, really.

Jared Bowen Well, Andris, let me bring you in here. This was incredibly significant for Shostakovich as well. Some have described it in characterizing him as perhaps the piece that he was most fond of. What's the connection that you have to it?

Andris Nelsons Yes. Well, what Tony said is absolutely right about the whole project and of the idea, how it came together. And of course, now I'm extremely excited to do this opera together with this wonderful cast and wonderful orchestra, of course. And it's very interesting that now, after we have recorded and performed all of the Shostakovich symphonies and all concertos, now coming to the opera, it feels so familiar. I mean the characters, the humor, sarcasm, grotesque, beauty, ugliness, extreme ugliness, death, destiny, everything what is in the symphonies, it's in this opera, too. And, it's interesting also, it's amazing how he was only 28 years old when he completed the opera, when was it premiered. I think it's an extreme masterpiece. I mean, it's really a masterpiece of writing such amazing work, and musically and philosophically dramatically, it's just a very, very mature piece.

Jared Bowen Well, how daring and avant-garde is he being, especially in this opera?

Andris Nelsons I think for those times, in 1934, for the Soviet Union, for all these censors and all these watchdogs of Stalin, it must have been very challenging. I mean, you can hear in the music the mastery of Shostakovich. There are moments where he illustrates almost what happens on the stage. I think he's a master of making a psychological atmosphere that you are absolutely involved in the piece, and you are shocked. We just rehearsed the the fourth act of Lady Macbeth. She grabs Sonyetka and pushes her in the lake and herself. She also drowns. And Sonyetka... [screams] You have an, "Oh, God!" It seems like a real Law and Order, you know. [laughs]

Jared Bowen Well, Tony, let me ask for a bit of a history lesson here. We just saw how and heard how passionate Andris is in feeling this. Stalin saw this piece, heard that same language, saw the violence, saw the sensuality, and was profoundly disturbed by it. And it changed the course of Shostakovich's career, nearly ended it.

Anthony Fogg That's right, Jared, yes. You know, the piece had been very successful. Its premiere was in 1934, and it was playing in several theaters around Moscow and St. Petersburg. It was a big hit. Shostakovich was unfortunately the wrong person at the wrong time. And this piece was the wrong piece of the wrong time in that, when Stalin came to see it, which is, I think, January, 1936, he was already trying to move the whole Social Realist movement in the arts to the next phase; he'd been doing this progressively across the various arts. And he came and it was in part, I think, the content of it, which he objected to, but it was also the extremes of the piece.

The irony was that there was another performance happening in Moscow that night, at a different theater, which was a sort of slightly censored version. And he was meant to have attended that, and by mistake was brought to the the smaller theater of the Bolshoi, and so saw this and reacted badly to it. And then a couple of days later in Pravda, there was not a piece denouncing Shostakovich, but an actual review of the piece, which was very, very negative. And Stalin used this as a means of attacking, making an example of Shostakovich. And Shostakovich was fearful for his life, he was looking forward to the upcoming premiere of his Fourth Symphony, which was a very extreme and experimental piece, and he called that off. And so he was really sort of made an example of.

And so Shostakovich consulted with friends. He traveled around for a while and collected folk music and the things that composers of the Soviet era then were meant to do. And then, of course, he wrote the Fifth Symphony, which is dubbed "An artist's response to just criticism." And the tone of the Fifth Symphony is very, very different. If you know Shostakovich's music well enough, you can suspect a lot of code written into it, as you do for many of the pieces written in subsequent years, especially during the period when he was still being watched by the Stalin regime.

But it really changed the course of his work, and it would be fascinating to know what else he would have written along the traditions of Lady Macbeth. This was going to be the first of, I think, 3 or 4 operas about great Russian women figures. And of course, after Lady Macbeth, he shied away from that. And he didn't write another opera. But it was a critical moment in his output and his life.

Jared Bowen Andris, how much do you connect with the biography of the man at this point?

Andris Nelsons When I studied at the beginning, you know, I was very interested in Shostakovich's life, the things happening around, I mean, with Stalin and with all the country and all other countries, I mean, Germany. I think it all influenced him. He was a sensitive soul. And it's a very interesting combination with him because he was a patriotic person who wanted to believe in his country. He, of course, was so aware of a great history of music and of art in the Tsar's time. And, of course, he didn't leave. He stayed and he stayed patriotic. He loves his country. But he was very unfortunate having Stalin in that time, being a dictator and leader of the Soviet Union. And he, I think, fully understood it after Lady Macbeth and all this.

Jared Bowen And this is a period in our world history where we have the heaviness of sins as we're seeing with major conflicts unfolding. Is there special significance to have this piece presented right now, considering all of the themes that we have just talked about?

Anthony Fogg I would like to say we scheduled it knowing what world events were going to happen. It is coincidental. As it works out, over the last few years of Boston Symphony programs, we've perchance had pieces that speak directly to world events. When the Ukraine war broke out was a time when we were doing Britten's War Requiem, for instance. So, look, the timing of these performances was around availability of singers and so forth. But it certainly does draw the parallels between great works of art and works of art that deal with difficult subjects and our contemporary world.

Jared Bowen You also have the opportunity to either go with the original opera, or a revision that came much later, in the 1960s.

Anthony Fogg We're doing the original version. So this is from 1934. And Shostakovich went back in the early 60s and revised it. Changed the title from Lady Macbeth of the Msensk District, which was a very specific title, which was about a local community and the underbelly of that local community and the people there, to calling it Katerina Izmailova, which is a sort of nobler expression of this character. Now, whether this was in response to what he'd been experiencing under the pressures of the Stalin regime, or whether it was just a softening of his own worldview, he came back and he took out some of the extremes of the piece. But we wanted to do the original because it is so incredibly daring.

It writes for the orchestra in a way that's breathtakingly brilliant. And we wanted to provide this opportunity. So I think it was a fairly easy decision for us to decide to do this first version. A couple of the really sordid scenes that are in the original were softened in the later version. It's a story that's not for the faint-hearted whatsoever. I should warn our listeners. But, you get caught up in the drama of this woman who is in many ways the sort of noble figure. She's this poor woman who's ended up in this terrible place in life, but incredibly strong personality.

One of my favorite scenes early on is where she's sort of doing a women's lib thing and talking about all of the great things that women have achieved in society. And you sort of feel a real sympathy for her. And she's also incredibly in love with Sergei. That's the thing that keeps driving her. And then when she's betrayed by him in the end, when he picks up with this woman, Sonyetka, it just drives to the final point. And as Andris said, she throws Sonyetka into the Volga and then herself afterwards. So that's the final moment of redemption, in a way.

Jared Bowen Andris, finally I'm wondering, is this a piece that you felt like you had to be at a certain point in your career or a certain point in life? Because I hear how much this is emotionally resonating with you, how much you're thinking about these characters, let alone the intricacy of the music and the genius there. So was this something you had to give a lot to or be ready for to do it now?

Andris Nelsons Yes, I must say, doing it for the first time 20 years ago, or even more, it was wonderful. But I think I'm glad that we did not start with the opera and then went to the symphonies chronologically, how it could be, because he already at the age of 28, he was so stubborn.

Anthony Fogg He knew about the world, human nature.

Andris Nelsons There's a moment where Lady Macbeth is preparing...

Anthony Fogg She's preparing a meal of mushrooms for her father-in-law.

Andris Nelsons And then she puts in rat poison. I think Shostakovich is trying to show the position where she is. She doesn't read. She's not educated. But in the meantime, she, as Tony says, she has these very deep thoughts about life, you know, and she's a very strong woman. And it's very interestingly written in the part, in the orchestra part. We hear in the music, there's something's going to happen. And she's giving the mushrooms to Boris, and he eats and he's enjoying. "Oh, you you make very good mushrooms," he says to her. And then suddenly the clarinet plays. [sings] Then he realizes she has put something in his food, and then he's dying and he's, "Oh, God," you can hear it in the orchestra. You can hear, of course, in him singing and it's really scary. And then Katarina, I think she's, I can't say she's happy, but I think she feels that that was the only choice.

Jared Bowen Well, Andris Nelsons, Tony Fogg. Thank you so much for your insight as we experience what sounds like a very epic roller coaster through this opera here at Symphony Hall. Thank you.

Andris Nelsons Thank you so much.

Anthony Fogg Our pleasure.